Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza Hotel among finalists for elite national award

Historic inn played host to Churchill, Elvis, JFK
Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 02, 2016
and last updated 2017-04-04 09:42:01-04

CINCINNATI -- More prestige could shower the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza Hotel Nov. 3 when the Historic Hotels of America Awards of Excellence are announced in Honolulu.

But the 1931 French art deco masterpiece will have to beat out some heavy hitters in the over-400-rooms category: The Palace (1875) and Fairmount (1907) in San Francisco, The Drake (1920) in Chicago, Hotel Monteleone (1886) in New Orleans and Moana Surfrider (1901) in Honolulu.

The hotel and the attached Carew Tower are part of a "city within a city" movement that gained popularity with developers in the late 1920s. It is Cincinnati's version of New York's Rockefeller Center. (Hilton photo)

“Just to be in that company of bigger-name recognition hotels in larger markets with more celebrity clients … to be nominated is an award in itself,” said Bob Louis, director of sales and marketing at the Netherland Plaza.

Since the awards are all about history, we asked Louis for some, found more on the HHA website and put together nine fun facts from the past that range from what kind of hamburger a hungry Elvis Presley ordered to visits from famous political people such as President Kennedy and Winston Churchill.

1. Presley stayed in the hotel often when he came to Cincinnati to perform. You can buy a $40 color photograph online that shows The King walking down a hallway at the Netherland Plaza. During one stay, according to the hotel’s “Walking Tour and Pocket History” pamphlet, he ordered a hamburger cooked well-done and loved it so so much he went to the kitchen, found the cook and announced with a broad grin: “I just wanted to thank the person that made the best burger I ever had.” Presley last performed in Cincinnati on June 25, 1977, three weeks before his death at age 42.

2. Cincinnati native and future recording artist and movie star Doris Day made her professional debut in the hotel’s big-band Pavilion Nightclub at age 15 in 1939, singing with Barney Rapp and the Duke Schuman Orchestra under her given name, Doris Kappelhoff. It was Rapp who suggested she change her name to increase her appeal. The Pavilion, by the way, was modeled after the art deco nightclub in the ocean liner Leviathan. Day is 92 and lives in Carmel, California, where she has been an animal rights activist since retiring from acting in 1968.

3. Another singer-actor to grace the Netherland Plaza was Bing Crosby (1903-1977). On one of Bingo’s visits, a crowd gathered outside the hotel, hoping to get a glimpse of the crooner. He refused hotel manager Harry Nolan’s offer to use a more private exit, telling him “When they stop recognizing me, I’m in trouble.” The story goes that Crosby crossed through the crowd, climbed onto the back of his convertible and sang a few songs before the police cleared the way so he could drive off.

Netherland Plaza was built by downtown Cincinnati developer John J. Emery, who got his finances together just before the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. (Hilton photo)

4. The Netherland Plaza’s record of a visit by John and Jackie Kennedy is limited to a black and white photograph of the beaming Camelot couple having dinner in the Hall of Mirrors. Another First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, dropped in to stay at the hotel unannounced more than a dozen times. “There we would be with the President’s wife on our hands and no preparations,” Nolan said. Other White House luminaries to stay at the Netherland Plaza included presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.

5. England Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s 1930s stay had a lasting impact on the hotel. His personal secretary Phyllis Moir wrote in her memoir that Churchill was blown away by the suite he was assigned. “Mr. Churchill was quite enchanted. ‘It’s gorgeous. It’s magnificent. It’s s-s-simply s-s- splendid,’ he stuttered, as he always did when excited. He loved the bathroom so much he had it copied at his country house at Chartwell. The suite in which he stayed has since been called the Churchill Suite.

6. Chicago set and theater designer George Unger hired European craftsmen to pull off his elaborate deco design for the interior of the hotel, but at least one Cincinnatian, Rookwood Pottery decorator William Hentschel, left his mark on Netherland Plaza. Hentschel, a New Yorker who started at Rookwood at age 15 and taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati for 35 years, is credited for creating five front-and-center sculptures in the hotel: two three-foot high, floral and geometric urns flanking the marble steps up to the lobby; two kneeling, web-footed seahorse torch lights flanking the grand staircase in the bar at Palm Court; and the ram’s head fountain behind its stage.

7. Netherland Plaza was Cincinnati industrialist John J. Emery’s baby. When the bank refused to back his plan for a “city within a city,” Emery cashed in his stocks and securities and paid the entire cost of the project -- $7 million then, $98 million today -- right before the Stock Market crashed in October 1929. Emery became one of the largest employers in Cincinnati, hiring men whose hopes had crashed as well to build the 800-room hotel and the attached 49-story Carew Tower around the clock up to its January 1931 opening. About 1,800 people were served seven-course meals cooked in the Netherland Plaza’s seven restaurants that first night.

8. The hotel originally was called St. Nicholas Plaza, a name the owners of another Cincinnati icon, Hotel Sinton, claimed they owned. They said they had the rights to the name St. Nicholas Hotel, which stood at Fourth and Race streets from 1865 to 1911.The court’s agreed, but not until after John Emery’s hotel had monogrammed its linens, china, silverware and stationery with the initials “NP.” Netherland was chosen to replace Nicholas as an homage to its location between the Ohio River and surrounding hillsides, and all that monogramming was saved. 

Netherland Plaza's staff of bellmen posed for this photo with the Palm Court bar and Rookwood Pottery artist William Hentschel's seahorse and ram's head statuary as a backdrop. (Hilton image)

9. The hotel underwent two major remodels, the one in the early 1980s being the most significant to its present grandeur. It took $28 million ($74 million today) to transform the Netherland Plaza back to its glory days. The building had survived a devastating fire in 1942 that wiped out its massive Hall of Mirrors chandelier, among other features. Redesigns had hidden its art deco treasures over the years. The hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and became a Historic Hotels of America member in the organization’s 1989 charter year.

84 hotel nominations
The HHA website lists 84 award nominees in 14 categories of historic American hotels, only eight of which are in the Midwest, mostly Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. Two awards will go to international hotels.

“We're keeping our fingers crossed that we win, but we're excited just to have been nominated,” Louis said.